What to Know About Your Baby's Sleep Sounds

Baby yawning
Lisa Wiltse / Contributor.

Once you have a baby yourself, you quickly realize that the phrase “sleep like a baby” isn’t exactly fitting for how your baby sleeps. Most babies don’t sleep very soundly or deeply at all. They toss and turn, fuss and cry, wake frequently, and make all kinds of strange sounds.

You were probably prepared for the fact that your newborn wouldn’t sleep through the night at first, and would need to eat frequently, including at night. But some of those other sleep behaviors may have thrown you for a loop, particularly all the weird sounds. Why didn’t anyone warn us that our babies would spend half the night grunting, gurgling, sneezing, squeaking, and whimpering?

Rest assured, though—those sounds emanating from your sweet cherub are almost always totally normal. Let’s explore the why and how of those odd little newborn sleep sounds.

The Basics of Newborn Sleep

It’s not exactly what you want to hear when you are already a sleep deprived new parent, but newborns are naturally restless sleepers. Sure, there are minutes and hours when they sleep soundly—where even the sound of a lawn mower outside or a babbling toddler in the next room doesn’t wake them.

But more often than not, newborn are easily wakeful, don’t stay very still while sleeping, seem to be constantly jolting around, flailing their little arms and legs this way and that, making sucking sounds, and sometimes whimpering for food.

Why Newborns Are Restless Sleepers

There is a reason for all the madness when it comes to newborn sleep. You can blame a newborn’s immature nervous system and normal newborn reflexes for most of it. Here’s what to know:

  • Baby’s circadian rhythms don’t develop till about six weeks of age, which means that sleep cycles have little regularity until then, and babies have trouble distinguishing night from day.
  • Till about six months, babies spend at least 50% of their time in active sleep (Rapid Eye Movement, REM). During REM sleep, they are in a lighter sleep state, their heart rate and breathing is faster, and you can see their eyes move beneath their eyelids.
  • Babies’ sleep cycles are only about 50 minutes (sleep cycles lengthen to 90 minutes by preschool age). Babies are more likely to become wakeful and startled between sleep cycles, and don’t yet know how to put themselves back to sleep.
  • Babies needs to eat every few hours, including in the middle of the night. When they are hungry, they might smack their lips together, suck on their fists, and begin to fuss and whimper if they are not fed soon enough.

No wonder newborn sleep is such a loud cacophony of sounds. Newborns are anything but quiet sleepers.

Normal Newborn Sleep Sounds

It’s not just the tossing and turning, lip smacking and suckling, kicking and flailing, whimpering and crying that makes newborn sleep so noisy. Because newborns’ respiratory and digestive systems are still immature and developing, you can expect to hear some peculiar and unexpected sounds coming from deep inside their little bodies, even while they appear to be in sweet slumber.

Normal Newborn Breathing Sounds

  1. Gurgling/Throat Sounds: Newborns don’t have their swallowing mechanism perfected at first, so they may gurgle up some of their milk or saliva. This is more likely to happen while they are sleeping. Eventually, newborns learn to fine tune their swallowing and this happens less.
  2. Stuffy Nasal Passages: Newborn are notoriously snotty! It is rare that a newborn has an actual cold (though if they show signs of any kind of viral infection, they should be seen by a doctor ASAP). The reason for the stuffiness is because babies primarily breathe out of their noses, not their mouths, so that they can feed more easily.
  3. Sneezing/Snorting/Whistling: Babies are also frequent sneezers, snorters, and whistlers. Again, this is because they are “nose breathers” rather than “mouth breathers” and because their nasal passages are very narrow. This tendency is outgrown by about six months.
  4. Coughing: Newborn often cough in their sleep. They may be coughing on milk, saliva, or mucus. Usually the coughing will clear the issue up on its own, but you can always pick your baby up, burp them, or gently tap their back to help clear out their lungs.

Normal Irregular Breathing Patterns While Sleeping

Usually you don’t think of irregular breathing as “normal,” but in most cases, it is for a newborn, especially while sleeping.

  1. Periodic Breathing: In periodic breathing, or your baby will cycle through periods of rapid breathing, breathing that sounds shallow, and short pauses between breaths. These pauses should last no longer than 10 seconds and your baby’s coloring and disposition should stay normal. Periodic breathing resolves after the first month of life.
  2. Transient Rapid Breathing: Babies often will have periods where they rapidly inhale a lot of air at once, deeper and deeper. This should last a minute or two and then their breathing should return to normal.
  3. Seesaw Breathing: With seesaw breathing, you’ll see your baby’s belly expand, and their chest (rib cage) contract in. This happens periodically and is nothing to worry about as long as it’s brief and baby’s breathing returns to normal soon after.

Normal Newborn Digestive Sounds

Anyone who spends a little time with a newborn will attest to the fact that there is a whole lot going on in the digestive department. Baby’s digestive systems are still getting used to doing their things, and it’s a quite a noisy process. Baby’s tend to eat and digest at night, so what you might think of as a strange sleep sound may just be your baby digesting their last meal.

Here are some familiar sounds you might hear from your baby’s little tummy:

  • Belching
  • Burping
  • Hiccups
  • Passing gas
  • Gurgling
  • Churning
  • Tummy growling
  • Grunting while pooping

When Does Baby Sleep Quiet Down?

It’s a gradual process, but most of the things that cause your newborn to be noisy and restless during sleep tend to resolve after the first month or so.

By six weeks, your baby’s circadian rhythms become more normal, and by six months babies only spend 30% of their sleep cycles in active sleep, as opposed to 50% at birth.

You can encourage healthy sleep habits in a newborn by:

  • Keeping nighttime dark and quiet so that your baby’s body will begin to know the difference between night and day
  • Learn to understand your baby’s sleepy cues (eye rubbing, that sleepy “look” in their eyes, sleepy fuss sounds, etc.) and put your baby to sleep promptly when they show signs of fatigue
  • Encourage daytime napping
  • Start to establish relaxing and soothing nighttime routines

In addition, your baby’s breathing and digestion should mature after the first month or so. Until then, if baby seems stuffy or uncomfortable during sleep, you can:

  • Try clearing their mucus out yourself, using a Q-tip
  • Try a nasal saline solution rinse
  • You can use a newborn nasal aspirator, if approved by your doctor.

If your baby’s digestion seems uncomfortable or strained, you can:

  • Try shorter, but more frequent feeding
  • Burp your baby more often
  • Ask your doctor about dietary changes if breastfeeding, or trying different formula types

What Baby Sleep Sounds Are Worrisome?

Again, most baby sleep sounds—while maybe louder and more frequent than you expected—are perfectly normal. However, if your baby shows any of the following signs while sleeping, you should call your doctor right away or take your baby to the nearest emergency room:

  • Breathing that is strained or constricted
  • Breathing pauses lasting longer than a few seconds
  • Congestion that makes breathing difficult
  • Fever that accompanies any breathing or digestive issues
  • Chest retractions
  • Rapid breathing that lasts longer than usual or is longer than 60 breaths a minute
  • Baby turning blue, or a persistent blue coloring
  • Baby that appears listless or lethargic

To minimize any risks, you should always practice safe sleep with your newborn, including:

  • Put your baby to sleep on their back
  • Have baby sleep on a firm surface
  • Baby’s sleep area should be clear of excess blankets, loose sheets, toys, bumpers, and sleep positioners
  • Don’t overheat your baby’s sleeping area

A Word from Verywell

Who would have thought that sleeping babies would end up being such noisy little creatures? It’s one of those things that no one prepares you for, but those of us who have been there remember being startled awake in the middle of a night by a newborn grunt, sneeze, or rumble and wondering what on earth had happened and if anything was wrong with our wee one.

These sleep sounds may sound troubling, but most of the time they are normal … just newborns being newborns. That being said, anytime you have a concern about a sound or behavior of your baby’s, contact your doctor. That’s what they’re there for. And don’t worry: sooner than later, your baby will start sleeping more quietly: most of the noisiness passes after the first month or so.

As for when your baby will sleep soundlessly, and do so all night long? Well, that could be another few months still. Sleeping through the night happens later than quieter sleeping does. But you’ll get there sooner than you think. All babies sleep through the night eventually.

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